Tippy Tea

Last Updated: Apr. 4, 2012
Collage of three tippy teas and a picture of a living tea leaf budThree tippy teas, and a picture of a live leaf bud of the tea plant.
Tippy tea refers to tea that includes a greater portion of tips (leaf buds). Tippy teas tend to be higher in caffeine, have a more delicate flavor and aroma, and be more expensive, relative to typical teas. The opposite of tippy teas are teas made from a greater portion of large, mature leaves. There is no standard term for these non-tippy teas, which tend to be lower in caffeine, darker in color, have a stronger flavor, and be less expensive.

The standard reference point for the classification of tea as tippy is the orange pekoe grade, made from the top two leaves and leaf bud. Tippy teas range from teas containing a slightly higher proportion of tips or leaf buds than orange pekoe, to those made exclusively out of tips or buds.

The tippy or non-tippy status of a tea is reflected in its grade, with certain grades including the letter "T" as an abbreviation for tippy, e.g. TGFOP or FTGFOP. See our article on grades of tea for a more thorough explanation.

Tippy and non-tippy styles of tea

Some styles of tea are always tippy, as a defining feature of the style. These include silver needle white tea, oriental beauty oolong, huangya, and the black teas Yunnan gold and golden monkey, among many other styles. Teas with "buds" in the name are usually tippy. Breakfast teas, such as English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast, usually include a fair portion of tips in order to achieve a higher caffeine content, but are usually not made exclusively of buds, as the larger leaves impart a bolder flavor and darker color.

At the other end of the spectrum, styles of tea low in tips include shou mei white tea and lapsang souchong. However, teas without leaf buds are not necessarily low grade or made of the largest leaves: for example, lu an melon seed is a style of green tea made only out of the first full leaf on the stalk, and containing neither buds nor more mature leaves.

Assessing portion of tips visually

Tea leaf showing downy tipsThis green tea consisting only of tips shows the characteristic rolled appearance and downy white hairs characteristic of tea leaf buds.
Identifying tips in loose-leaf tea takes experience due to variability in the appearance of tea leaf across different styles of tea. Leaf buds tend to be folded or rolled up, as they consist of a young leaf that was plucked in the process of unfurling, but many teas are rolled or folded in their production process, and it takes experience to distinguish the natural roll of a tip from the induced rolled leaves of prepared teas.

Tips and buds also tend to be much smaller than mature leaves, but the size alone is not a good indicator of identifying tips, without a reference point, as different cultivars of tea plant have vastly different sizes of leaves. The tips from a large-leaf cultivar can be significantly larger than mature leaves from a small-leafed cultivar.

Differences in color of the dry leaf can also give you clues as to the portion of the tip. Across all styles of tea, the tips tend to range from lighter in color to the same color. The tips in white tea tend to retain a lighter color than the larger leaves, because the larger leaves undergo greater oxidation during the natural withering process.

Tea leaf showing orangish tipsThis loose-leaf Assam shows some orangish tip.
Some black teas show a golden or orangish color of the tips, so seeing golden or orangish tips in the dry leaf can give you a minimum baseline for the portion of tips in the tea. Black tea with a pure golden color consists exclusively of tips. However, the golden appearance is not just a function of the portion of tips but also how the tea is processed, and it is possible to have tippy teas that have the same color as regular black teas, and do not exhibit this golden color at all. Some sources, especially older sources talking about black tea production, use the term "tippy tea" to refer only to tea that has a visible golden appearance to the tips.

With white, green, and oolong teas, the leaf tips often show fine downy hairs, usually with a whitish or silvery appearance. But this feature, as with others, also varies highly based on the cultivar of tea plant used.

In summary

The portion of tips or leaf buds in a tea is one of the most important factors influencing caffeine content, flavor, and price of tea. Tippy teas tend to have a smoother, milder flavor and a higher caffeine content. With practice, you can learn to identify the appearance of tips and leaf buds in loose-leaf tea, although it is always important to compare relative to the type of tea you are looking at, as the visual appearance of tea leaf varies greatly between different styles of tea.

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